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François COUPERIN (1668 - 1733): Leçons de Ténèbres

Lucy Crowe, Elizabeth Watts, sopranod
La Nuova Musica
Dir: David Bates

rec: Oct 2015, London, St Augustine's Church, Kilburn
Harmonia mundi - HMU 807659 (© 2016) (70'38")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - tranlations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score Couperin

Sébastien DE BROSSARD (1655-1730): Sonate en trio in e minor (SdB 220)a; Sonate en trio in a minor (SdB 223)b; Stabat mater (SdB 8)c; François COUPERIN: Leçons de Ténèbresd

[* solo] Miriam Allan*, Zoe Brown, Lucy Cox, Katy Hill, sopranoc; David Gould, Simon Ponsford, George Pooley, Nicholas Scott*, hautecontrec; Thomas Herford, Graham Neal, Simon Wall*, tenorc; James Arthur*, Jonathan Brown, baritonec; Tom Flint, Edward Grint*, Dingle Yandell, bassc; Bojan Cicic, Sabine Stoffer, violinab; Jonathan Rees, viola da gamba; Judith Evans, double bassc; Alex McCartney, theorbo; David Batesabd, Silas Wollstonc, organ

Numerous composers of the renaissance and the baroque periods have contributed in one way or another to the celebrations of Holy Week. They composed Passions, responsories or settings of the Lamentations of Jeremiah. The latter were performed during the last three days before Easter. With the growing popularity of this kind of music the performances were moved from the night to the evening before the respective day. That was also the case in France in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Lamentations for Maundy Thursday, for instance, were performed on Wednesday.

Interest in performances of Leçons de Ténèbres, which took place in churches and in convents, was such that they turned from liturgical into commercial events. That was partly due to the fact that opera performances were forbidden during Lent. For opera lovers the Leçons de Ténèbres were a substitute for opera. As opera singers were without employment during Lent they sometimes participated in performances of Leçons de Ténèbres. Some churches even charged for seats. A contemporary writer stated that "the convents of the Théatins and the Feuillants, as well as the Abbey of Longchamp turned their church into an opera house".

A complete set of Lamentations comprises nine lessons, three for each day. It seems that François Couperin had the intention of writing a complete set as well. In the foreword of the publication of the first three lamentations, to be sung on Wednesday, he wrote: "I composed some years ago three Tenebrae Lessons for Good Friday, at the request of the Lady Nuns of Lxx [Longchamp] where they were sung with great success. I decided a few months ago to compose those for Wednesday and Thursday. However, I am giving you here only the three for the first day, since I do not have enough time before Lent to have the other six printed." From that we may conclude that he definitely composed a set for Friday; this has never been found. As he says that he didn't have the time to have the other settings printed, this at least suggests that he had already written a set for Thursday as well. However, so far this hasn't turned up either. That leaves the three lamentations for Wednesday which were printed and which are frequently performed and recorded in our time.

I doubt whether this recording is an essential addition to what is already on the market. In fact, this is one of the most disappointing performances I have heard in recent years. The Première Leçon is done pretty well; Lucy Crowe uses some vibrato but not so much that is disturbing. The Seconde Leçon is very different; Elizabeth Watts sings with quite a lot of vibrato, even in the melismatic settings of the Hebrew letters which open each section. While it is true that Couperin's settings show the influence of the Italian style and there are several pretty dramatic episodes, the performance here is overly dramatic and just doesn't fit the overall character of these works or the time in which they were created. In the Troisième Leçon the two voices join each other and there is clearly some difference between them; they don't blend that well. Unfortunately it is Lucy Crowe rather than Elizabeth Watts who adapts her style of singing to her partner which means that she uses quite some more vibrato than in the Première Leçon. The result is not nice to listen to. From a historical and stylistic point of view this is unacceptable.

The rest of the programme is more interesting as far as the repertoire is concerned and the performances are also a little better, though not much as far as the vocal item is concerned. Sébastien de Brossard is one of the most remarkable characters of the music scene in France around 1700. He not only was a prolific composer, he was also an encyclopedist who published the first music dictionary in France. Later encyclopedias, like those by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France and Johann Gottfried Walther in Germany, took his work as a model. His thorough knowledge of all kinds of music was largely based on his own collection. In the 1720s he bequeathed it to the Bibliothèque Royale, now part of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It comprised more than 1,000 scores and theoretical works (*). It is notable that around 300 are by Italian and around 200 by French composers which bears witness to his strong interest in the Italian style.

As a composer he doesn't receive much attention. The largest part of his oeuvre consists of sacred music; it also includes some airs de cour, six cantatas on sacred subjects and a few instrumental pieces. The latter are represented here with two trio sonatas for two violins and bc. They are of the pre-Corellian type as there is no formal division into separate movements. They rather comprise a number of sections of contrasting character, which is reminiscent of the earlier trio sonatas written in Italy.

The Stabat mater was completed in March 1702 and is scored for five voices and bc. It is divided into twelve sections for different scorings: some are for the full ensemble, others for one to five solo voices. It is an expressive work which clearly shows Brossard's Italian leanings. In the opening section he uses harmony for expressive reasons and that is also the case in 'Quis est homo': in the last line the word "dolentem" is set to strong dissonants. In the next section, 'Pro peccatis', the word "flagellis" is vividly depicted.

The sonatas are played well and the ensemble as a whole delivers a rather convincing performance of the Stabat mater. However, some of the members of the ensemble use too much vibrato in their solos and are sometimes a bit too pathetic. It is right to pay attention to the Italian features in the music of Brossard - and of Couperin, for that matter - but one should not exaggerate. After all, this is French music, written at a time that too clearly audible Italian traces were not really appreciated. A certain restraint is recommendable in the interpretation of French music from around 1700.

Even so, it is for Brossard's sake that I recommend this disc, albeit with considerable hesitation as Couperin's Leçons de Ténèbres are pretty horrible.

(*) James Halliday, in his liner-notes, writes about scores by 1,000 composers. I don't know if there were that many composers at the time but that is certainly incorrect. It has been corrected by the translator in the French translation of the liner-notes.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Elizabeth Watts
La Nuova Musica

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